Spin a Web Between the School and the World

Proceedings of INET97, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Sirkku Männikkö

Eva Fåhræus





Abstract

A distance course about the Internet was provided for Swedish high school teachers. Course design was based on constructivist ideas about teaching and learning. The Internet was used for communication during the course.

In the qualitative evaluation of the course we are discussing our findings about communication strategies, group interaction, and knowledge-creating processes.

Participants developed various strategies for communication and learning where they combined asynchronous and synchronous forms. Through collaborative learning they have created new ways of applying the Internet in their teaching.

We also found that computer conferencing systems need to be developed in order to support teaching in a more efficient manner.

Contents

Introduction

Method of the Study

The Theoretical Framework

A Course Outline

The Participants of the Course

Technological Competence

Motives for Participation

Teaching Methods Prior to the Course

Task Groups

The Means of Assistance

Metaphors Created for Teaching and Learning

Communication Strategies

Other Findings

References

Introduction

Information technology is changing our notions of teaching and learning as we try new ways of applying the technology. Internet is one of the new technologies and it is still a relatively strange environment for most of us. We are barely starting to explore it and form our understandings about it.

In a project, sponsored by the Swedish Department of Education, we have been developing and evaluating new pedagogical methods for Internet use in education. We have used a combination of face-to-face meetings and distance learning. An electronic conferencing system with a graphical user interface has been functioning as the principal means of communication. Collaborative task groups provided the vehicle for learning.

In our opinion teachers have a central role in the educational development work. It is only through them real and permanent pedagogical progress can take place in schools. That is why we designed a course about Internet via Internet with teachers as our target group. Our research questions have been focused on:

1) the means of assistance used by the participants

2) the metaphors created for teaching and learning

3) group interaction

4) communication strategies

5) the process of knowledge creation

Method of the Study

A course evaluation has been conducted primarily by qualitative means. Video recording, participant observation, and interviews have been our principal methods, complemented by questionnaires and document analysis.

Before the course started, we visited four schools in order to learn more about the every day life of our participants. We video recorded the school environment and participated in the classes. We also interviewed the teachers and principals during our stay. The participants received three questionnaires. All of the electronic communication was automatically saved for later analysis. Diaries of the participants have been another important source material in our evaluation.

The Theoretical Framework

Notions of knowledge and learning that constitute the theoretical framework for our course originate from constructivism.

A core concept in constructivism is that understanding is created in our interactions with the environment. We construct understanding individually and can only test the compatibility of our understandings with other people. Acquisition of knowledge is thus seen as a process which individuals themselves are responsible for.

On the other hand, knowledge or the construction of knowledge also includes incorporating the experiences of others, their individual experiences, and their collective and available knowledge, which is why discourse and other forms of co-operation/collaboration between individuals are important in educational contexts.

Von Glasersfeld 1 notes that other people are the greatest source of alternative views to challenge our current views and hence to serve as a source of stimulus for new learning.

Nerman 2 discusses the importance of words and concepts as a bridge between individuals and as a bridge to our joint knowledge and history. He emphasises how words can only acquire importance if individuals can relate the meaning to personal experiences through action and purposeful behaviour. We could thus summarise that discourse builds a bridge between different experiences of individuals and concepts, in their turn, form a bridge to our accumulated knowledge.

One more central proposition in constructivism is that learning takes place when a cognitive conflict arises and plays the role of the stimulus for learning. Dewey 3 calls it the "problematic" which leads to and is the organiser for learning. Piaget 4 talks about a need for "accommodation" when current experience cannot be assimilated in existing schema.

Problem-based learning (PBL) is embedded in constructivism. Knowledge is to be constructed by the mutual efforts of teachers and learners. According to Finkle and Torp 5 problem-based learning is a curriculum development and instructional system that simultaneously develops both problem solving strategies and disciplinary knowledge bases and skills by placing students in the active role of problem-solvers confronted with an ill-structured problem that mirrors real-world problems. The goal is engaging and motivating students to explore and understand issues in depth.

A Course Outline

With the above described constructivist ideas in mind, we sketched a course outline: participants would work in real world situations with a problem area they themselves would have to define. Collaborative task groups would constitute the basic working entities. They were to be formed spontaneously around the problem areas the participants suggested. Through hands-on activities, e.g. searching on the Internet, and group discussions around learning theories and applications, a true collaborative learning situation would be created. Through this design, we wished to emphasise the teacher/learner perspective as participants would be developing a repertoire of new teaching, learning, and communication strategies applicable in the Internet.

Our aim was to see the technologies used as knowledge-building tools and as a support for collaborative learning. It is very much a PBL model we were applying. We would like to emphasise, however, that we were applying the model in a very flexible manner.

Allthough ours was a distance course, we felt that it was important to bring the participants together for face-to-face-meetings in order to enhance group connectedness and collaboration. The course was inaugurated and finished with two- and-a-half-day -sessions. During the rest of the course, the communication and work took place on the Internet.

The Participants of the Course

The 51 participants came from all over Sweden, representing about 30 different high schools. Most theoretical school subjects were represented. Out of the 51 participants 23 were women and 28 were men. The average age was quite high: 47 years which, however, well reflects the circumstances at Swedish high schools.

Teachers took the course on their free time parallel with their ordinary work. This led to some complications during the course as the participants were constantly struggling with conflicts of interests: they were all extremely ambitious in their teaching and worked hard in order to fulfil their obligations at school. They had also realised the importance and necessity of developing themselves as teachers but often found themselves giving in and choosing obligations at school before their own professional development.

Schools are to develop and apply their own IT strategy according to governmental directions, but at that moment, only about half of the schools could actually present such a strategy.

Technological Competence

Participants' experience of computing and the educational use of computer technology varied a great deal. Access to technology varied also: in some schools both pupils and teachers are equipped with laptop computers. In other schools, six to ten pupils have to share a single computer and teachers are facing the same situation. Some teachers do not ever use computers in their classes nor in their own work.

The following diagram describes the technological competence of the participants:

Table number 1: Technological competence of the participants

                    no            some          using            teaching in   
                    experience    experience                     use of        
                                                daily    occasi                
                                                         onally                
   word processing                              33       2       16            
            e-mail             2  14            15       13      7             
distribution lists            37  8             1        4       1             
      conferencing            28  11            4        6       2             
           systems                                                             
       calculation            11  10            5        12      13            
        programmes                                                             
               WWW             3  10            14       15      9             
          download            15  9             6        17      4             
        programmes                                                             
use search engines             2  8             17       20      4             
               IRC            39  11                     1                     
       news groups            28  13            2        7       1             
               MUD            46  5                                            
              java            41  10                                           
         mainframe                              1                              
        simulation                                               1             
        programmes                                                             
  create homepages                                               1             
        multimedia                                       1       1             
        Powerpoint                                       1                     
               Arc                                               1             
 View-gisprogramme                                                             
multimedia,                                                      1             
homepages                                                                      

The majority of the participants had no or very little experience of computer conferencing or other forms of communication at the Internet. Most of them were familiar with word-processing and with e-mail. Quite a few had also found their way to the WWW.

However, our course only required that the participants should possess the basic knowledge of computing and of e-mail. The course was designed for beginners. Those who eventually knew more could become a valuable resource for the others and beginners would have the possibility of making progress at their own pace. Besides, those with better knowledge found themselves having the opportunity to deepen their knowledge as they explained things to the others.

Motives for Participation

The expectations of the participants can be summarised as follows:

They wanted to learn to use the Internet, to learn the technology, to become more competent, more certain, and more able to use the possibilities.

Most of the teachers felt a need for change, almost a pressure; they wanted guidelines for their new role as a teacher. They wanted to keep up with developments, and they also wanted to try something new.

Teachers also expressed very clearly their wish /need for new professional contacts with like-minded for exchanging lessons learnt and for gaining new ideas.

Teaching Methods Prior to the Course

There seemed to be as many ways of teaching as there are teachers. The common denominator for our participants seems to have been the urge for change. Only a few were applying strictly traditional teaching methods. Several of the teachers told us about their cautious experiments with student - active teaching where the teacher acts more like " a guide on the side - not as a sage on a stage".

Teachers' attitudes towards the Internet were mainly positive - otherwise they would not have applied for our course! The picture is not a black and white one but it seems that the participants had already created themselves various understandings about the Internet.

The Internet seemed to them something huge and difficult to manage. At the same time they found it filled with opportunities for information retrieval and communication.

These pictures of the Internet were to be re-examined during the course.

Task groups

During the first face-to-face meeting with the participants, task groups took form around ten different problem areas.

The choices of the problem areas reflected the ideas and understandings of the participants about the nature of the Internet as a tool for information retrieval and communication.

We recommended groups of five participants but, in practice, the group size varied from two to nine persons. The following task groups were formed:

Group number one, designated "Problem", decided to map out problems occurring while using the Internet in the school environment. They wanted to determine what kind of problems teachers and students face while using the Internet as a tool in teaching and learning and they wanted to provide solutions for teachers.

Group number two, "DA2000", took upon itself the task of preparing material for an introduction course in computers. Group members felt inspired by PBL and planned to apply the method. They also took the challenge of preparing their material for the Internet.

Group number three took the name "Internet" and started to ponder over what Internet could bring to their teaching. They outlined their objectives fairly loosely; they would map out Internet material within their subject matters. They started hunting useful links and possible foreign contacts. They also felt it would be important to evaluate the material found on the Internet.

Group number four, "Youth", chose youth cultures in the world as the topic of their project and began the investigations with the assistance of the Internet.

Group number five, "MUD at school", discovered MUD and wanted to build their project around the use of MUD in teaching and learning.

Group number six, "English on the Internet", aimed at getting pupils to learn English at their own pace and follow their own interests, becoming acquainted with the Internet through a self-instructing material which will help them chat with their peers in other countries and search for information about their hobbies. The project would formulate problems relevant to the curriculum. The web site would contain practise examples for a) language training, b) communication, c) writing exercises, and d) information searching.

Group number seven named themselves after "Yggdrasil", a tree in an old Nordic saga. Their aim was to create a common IT platform for information exchange in school. The goal was both to improve the administration and to make the computer a natural tool in everybody's work, both teachers and pupils. For this the project planned to use an Intranet. Work would be done in the following steps: a) an internal net for administration, b) Intranet as an exercise environment, c) a survey of the need and attitudes of pupils, d) link storage, and e) a practical trial of the ideas.

Group number eight, "Search", wanted to create a handbook about searching, evaluating, and dealing with information on the Internet. The pedagogical idea was that experience and theory should be combined in learning. The handbook would help pupils to start their searching and after some practise they could follow up their findings by comparing with the handbook.

Group number nine, "Co-operation between the school and industries", focused on exploring if and how the Internet could facilitate contacts and co-operation between schools and industries. This could be used in multi-subject projects.

Group number ten, "Homer in our time", applied the classical drama as a model for a modern soap opera on the Internet. By analysing the dramaturgy and the technical structure of a typical classical drama and the new possibilities in the new technology, pupils would hopefully become involved and stimulated in creating their own drama.

The choices give a good picture of the different situations of the teachers: some of them were beginners on the Internet and wanted to learn their way around in the new environment, others had come further and felt ready for developing new methods for their teaching with the help of the Internet. For both groups, the central part of the experience was that they were creating new understandings and that they were learning as they interacted with the environment in their schools, the Internet being an essential, novel part of that environment. Through their own use of the Internet, teachers were constructing their own picture of the net and its use and building a know-how, a tacit knowledge, creating a firm ground to stand on when they meet pupils who bear a somewhat different picture of the Internet.

The Means of Assistance

Internet technology is something fairly new in schools: several of our participants were in the process of getting the Internet connection when our course was about to begin. That being the case, the starting difficulties were considerable. During the first two months of the course, many of the participants felt that the technology was of no assistance - on the contrary - it was the wild and unpredictable force that was to be tamed and brought under control. Sometimes one was lucky and sometimes not!

Gradually, however, the participants grew more confident in using the technology and started conquering new areas of use.

With the help of computer conferencing technology we also wanted to create a virtual classroom for our teaching and learning. In the beginning of a course, there would exist only a skeleton consisting of different conferences, places for information exchange and discussion, and empty mailboxes waiting for users.

When our groups were formed, we reserved special private spaces (folders) for each task group.

The classroom comes alive as the participants log in to the system and start using it. Then the system is in continuous change. It could be called a living book as the texts created by the users in their interaction are saved and can be read as pages in a book. When the course is over, the whole history of the course is documented in the memory of the computer and all the participants can benefit from it.

Metaphors Created for Teaching and Learning

We initiated the start-up sessions with a discussion around some commonly used metaphors of the Internet, e. g. "the library". In such a library, the books seem to be spread out all over the floor and you read what you happen to tumble over. An alternative metaphor presented was "the city": You can stroll around and meet people, drop into a café to have a chat with some new friends. You can go shopping, visit famous art galleries and get your evening paper.

The communication between participants in the course took place in separate conferences or "rooms" with different names on the net. Each task group had its own room where just the group and the teachers could enter. Other rooms were dedicated for publishing results, for general support or for discussions.

This structure and the metaphors used helped the participants to navigate in the system. They also guided the behaviour of the participants, reveiling to them what our expectations were.

The name of one of the task groups, Yggdrasil, refers to a tree, the origin of the whole earth, according to the old Nordic mythology. It was a mighty, venerable tree with a thick stem and branches spreading out over the whole world. The task group used this metaphor to visualise a tool for reaching each other in the whole school and beyond. In its branches you would find the curriculum, notes about changes of meeting places, and the time and place for the next soccer game. You could put your assignments there and ask questions. But you could also branch out to reach peers in other places of learning - north, south, west, and east, to exchange experiences and to practise other languages.

Another task group used the Internet as a "stage" for their show, the soap opera, Homer style. Two classes in two different schools would create the show together, right on stage, alternating. Thus, their actions, applause or boos would be noticed continuously. The roles of the participants would develop and adjust to the audience and this would inspire the analysis and discussion.

All these metaphors are examples of the fact that the Internet builds "bridges" between our otherwise separated islands of knowledge and history and helps us construct new knowledge. Discussions build bridges between different experiences among the participants and help us to use new perspectives and deepen the understanding of new concepts.

Communication Strategies

Internet supports both asynchronous and synchronous communication. Our course design gave greater emphasis on asynchronous communication. To our surprise, we were to find out very soon that the participants developed strategies where they combined asynchronous and synchronous communication, and often favoured the synchronous one.

On-line chat and even MUD became popular. Several of the task groups established regular chat hours for meetings. This was a way to speed up the decision making process in the task group and also to create effective working routines for the group. Effectiveness became a desirable and ruling factor in interaction as the participants felt themselves extremely stressed with their schedules. Meetings served as a forum for problem solving, decision making and follow up of the project work. They also had a central function in enhancing group cohesion: group members interacted socially, not only task oriented, supporting and encouraging each other, revealing parts of their private lives in a manner that would not be common in face-to-face lecture situations.

Task groups became the main unit of interaction which is natural as within the task groups participants had a common goal, a task to perform. It took, however, a long time before the groups started to function. Only a couple of groups made a successful start: interaction was initiated and stabilised in an early stage as well as the results of the work were made visible. The success of these groups can partly be explained by the high technical competence of some of the members.

In other task groups, the difficulties associated with the technology impeded the communication and thus the forming of functional groups. As getting connected with the Internet was not always easy, other means of communication, like e-mail, telephone, and facsimile, were used instead. All of the ten groups started to work on their projects eventually. Some of the groups, however, maintained a low level of interaction (less than once a week) through the whole course. Reasons for this can be several: most of the participants were not acquainted with electronic means of communication and never became comfortable with them either during the relatively short period of time (6 months) the course was running. Another crucial factor we have referred to is tight schedules for the participants.

Some of the participants expressed frustration over the communication medium and wished that we would have met at least once more during the course. We did not, however, arrange several face-to-face -meetings, partly due to the tight schedules and financial situations of all those involved. We feel, however, that it is important to investigate the effects of (experienced) distance in teaching and learning situations.

Other Findings

As course leaders and teachers we often found it difficult to work through the conferencing system. The lack of tools for monitoring the progress of the students in their learning often made our work hard. Thus, it is crucially important that computer conferencing systems will be developed in order to support teaching in a more efficient manner.

References

1. Von Glasersfeld, E. (1989) Cognition, construction of knowledge, and teaching. Synthese 80:121-140.

2. Nerman, B. (1970) Människan som språk. Essäer 1963-1969. Stockholm. Bonniers.

3. Dewey, J. (1938) Logic: The theory of inquiry. New York. Holt & Co.

4. Piaget, J. (1977) The Development of Thought: Equilibrium of cognitive structures. New York. Viking Press.

5. Finkle, S.L. & Torp, L.L. (1995) Introductory Documents. Illinois Math and Science Academy. Aurora, IL.